It was only a few months after I turned ten that I discovered the world. Before this time, I had spent most of my life in Brownsville, feeling as remote and isolated as you could growing up in the last city in Texas. One of our few excursions from home was driving across the international bridge to Matamoros so I could get what my father considered a “decent” haircut, by which he meant a very short haircut that cost less than a dollar, tip included. The barber would bring out a special cushioned board and lay it across the armrests of the chair. Then I’d climb up and sit still for my haircut, waiting patiently during those times when the barber had to stop and make a ss-ss-ss sound at a pretty girl passing in front of his shop. Afterward, my father and I would walk to Plaza Hidalgo, where he could get his boots shined and I could buy a candy from the man standing on the corner with the big glass case. I always went for the calabaza candies, which were made of a rich pumpkin and looked like jewels extracted from deep within the earth.
As far south as we were, I knew there was a world beyond Brownsville because my sister and two brothers had left town years earlier. When we drove to Houston to visit my brothers, one of them would take my mother to the mall so she could shop at the big department stores we didn’t have at Amigoland Mall. After shopping, we’d go back to my brother’s house, eat, rest, maybe eat again, maybe watch TV, and then go to sleep. A couple of days later, we’d get in the car and drive back to Brownsville. My parents weren’t interested in seeing Houston. Houston was a big city with a lot of freeways where they were bound to get lost, and did, every time we visited, which was how I ended up seeing more of the city. My parents traveled to Houston to visit family, not to be running around getting lost. They had no interest in the roller coasters at Astroworld or ice-skating at the Galleria or anything else. My father worked as a livestock inspector for the USDA and spent a good part of his day patrolling the Rio Grande on horseback to make sure horses or cattle weren’t being crossed into the country. During his rides he had been startled by rattlesnakes, bucked off his horse, and shot at by drug smugglers—he didn’t need any more excitement in his life. Besides, it was usually hot in Houston, and he hadn’t worked out in the sun the other 51 weeks of the year so he could drive to another city to sweat on his vacation.
I should mention that my parents were older than most parents with a ten-year-old in the house. My mother was 52 and my father was 60. Being older, they had developed certain habits that weren’t going to change. For instance, my father believed in sticking to certain meals. Food fell into three distinct categories: Mexican food, which he could eat every day and die a happy man; American food—meals like hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken—which we ate occasionally; and other people’s food, which included all food he refused to eat. Whenever I suggested trying something different, like Chinese food, he’d look at me as if he and my mother might have brought the wrong baby home from the hospital.
As I understood it, this was my father’s unstated philosophy: We